Bikini: a word that is ubiquitous in modern culture and carries an immediate visual image. Few people conjure up alternate images of the isolated Pacific atoll or the atomic bombs that rendered it unfit for human habitation decades ago. Shortly after WWII ended, the United States chose Bikini Atoll to test nuclear weapons and relocated its residents, promising their safe return after testing was complete. Seventy-plus years later Bikini is still not safe for people to live on . . . but underwater, it’s another story.

Bikini Atoll is one of the twenty-nine atolls and five islands that comprise the Marshall Islands in the North Pacific. As part of Micronesia, the Marshalls were claimed by Germany in the early 20th century and in 1920 mandated to Japan by the League of Nations in the settlement of WWI. Japan secretly fortified the Marshalls prior to WWII, and the December 1941 attacks of nearby Wake Island came from these island bases. (Some maintain that Wake Atoll belongs to the Marshall group: its closest reach is Borak Atoll, 350 miles to the southeast. Bikini lies about 540 miles south of Wake.) The US took possession of the Marshalls in 1945, following Japan’s defeat in the war.

The United States had three nuclear blasts under its belt by the end of the war – the Trinity test in July 1945 and the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the utter devastation of which brought Japan to surrender – but needed more tests to evaluate the impact of a nuclear attack on warships and military equipment, as well as future design of its own. Authorities chose Bikini Atoll for its remoteness and for its protective lagoon that could house dozens of decomissioned and captured navy vessels for targeting. The 167 Bikini residents agreed to evacuate and were taken with some provisions to uninhabited Rongerik Atoll in early 1946. Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted four major operations with twenty-three nuclear detonations over, on, and under Bikini Atoll.

The huge, expensive, highly publicized Operation Crossroads took several months to set up. Thousands of military and civilian personnel scurried to the task. The lagoon was filled with ninety-five WWII target vessels, including battleships, submarines, and notably the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga. Many were fueled and carried ordnance and the Saratoga was also staged with fighter aircraft. Additional planes, tanks, and amphibious craft were placed on shore. Over 5,000 unlucky animals – pigs, goats, rats, and of course guinea pigs – filled ship decks, holds and pens on shore. Operation Crossroads commenced on July 1, 1946 with test “Able,” an atomic bomb dropped from a B-29 that detonated five hundred feet above the staged fleet and missing the target battleship, but sank five others and damaged more. The next bomb, “Baker” was deployed under a barge in the crowded lagoon with far more spectacular and devastating impact. An enormous mushroom cloud rose, contaminating the entire fleet and sinking many ships, including the Saratoga. I do not have statistics on test animal casualties, but imagine that they didn’t fare well.

Four days after the first test, a daring new bathing suit made its debut at a Paris fashion show. Designer Louis Reard decided the perfect nickname for his skimpy, sexy swimsuit was Bikini, a name that was jumping off the headlines and now unforgettably linked with the “WOW” factor. But for more than a decade, the only “bombshells” who wore the Bikini were “hot-blooded” European women: it was way too risque for American women. In 1960 a new pop song was released in the US, and some readers may remember the lyric refrain: “It was an itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini that she wore for the first time today . . .” The song described an American girl, first to give it a go: afraid to come out of the locker, afraid somebody would see, so a blanket around her she wore and she sat bundled up on the shore, now she’s afraid to come out of the water, and now she’s turning blue, and so on. She never does own it in the 1960 song, but within a couple of years the bikini was all the rage in the States.

In the meantime, the Bikini islanders had been displaced again and again, suffering malnutrition and requiring increasing aid in unsustainable environments. Subsequent bomb tests on their home atoll included Operation Castle that took place in 1954 (the infamous Castle Bravo test, a miscalculation that resulted in a 15 megaton detonation – a thousand times more powerful than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki – vaporized three islands and spread a vast cloud of nuclear fallout that contaminated regional island populations, poisoned the crew of a Japanese fishing boat, and dispersed traces across the globe, arguably the most “oops” moment in human history), and Operations Redwing and Hardtack in 1956 and 1958, adding another several dozen shots to the test zone. By the end of the 1950s, Bikini was declared a wasteland, unfit for human habitation, but at least the nuke tests were finally over.

Recent studies have opened up the technical possibility for return, though Bikini soil retains the radioactive isotope Caesium-137, rendering anything grown on or feeding in the location contaminated. Visually, the beaches are pristine. What is truly remarkable, however, is the post-atomic growth of marine life. Enormous corals and rich, diverse fish and shark populations thrive in Bikini Atoll, unmolested by outside predation or other factors. It’s no surprise that SCUBA divers found this paradise, despite the barriers to getting – and being – there. But the lure was the ghost ships, not the fish. In the last ten years Bikini has become a unique destination for advanced, technical divers who can descend to the depths of the “Ghost Fleet” at the bottom of the lagoon. The prize is the sunken carrier Saratoga (we remember its coulda-shoulda rescue mission for Wake in December 1941), lying deep but upright and largely intact. For a few years returned Bikinians and others sought to build up a fly-in, land-based dive operation that might have yielded a good living for locals, but unreliable air operations caused cancellation in 2008. In the subsequent decade an Australia-based SCUBA outfit has operated licensed, live aboard dive trips from Kwajalein to the coveted destination.

It’s just too bad that the Bikini islanders got the shaft. They number some 5,000 now, but are scattered far and wide, and few of the 1946 residents remain. The US has paid some reparations and compensation for contamination and displacement, but just think if the people had been able to rebuild Bikini society with the wealth of the local SCUBA trade or, even better, a cut on the global swimwear and underwear trade that bears their name, a largely unknown echo of their sad history.

National Security Archive: The Nuclear Vault
Dive Adventures: Bikini Atoll